2016 was the smartest year ever
For me, 2016 was the year of AI. It went from an esoteric subject to a topic you’d discuss down the pub. In lectures on AI in learning around the world in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, US, UK and around Europe, I could see that this was THE zeitgeist topic of the year. More than this, things kept happening that made it very real….
1. AI predicts a Trump win
One particular instance was a terrifying epiphany. I was teaching on AI at the University of Philadelphia, on the morning of the presidential election, and showed AI predictions which pointed to a Trump win. Oh how they laughed – but the next morning confirmed my view that old media and pollsters were stuck in an Alexander Graham Bell world of telephone polls, while the world had leapt forward to data gathering from social media and other sources. They were wrong because they don’t understand technology. It’s their own fault, as they have an in-built distaste for new technology, as it’s seen as a threat. At a deeper level, Trump won because of technology. The deep cause ‘technology replacing jobs’ has already come to pass. It was always thus. Agriculture was mechanised and we moved into factories, factories were automated and we moved into offices. Offices are now being mechanised and we’ve nowhere to go. AI will be the primary political, economic and moral issue for the next 50 years.
2. AI predicts a Brexit win
On the same basis, using social media data predictions, I predicted a Brexit win. The difference here, was that I voted for Brexit. I had a long list of reasons - democratic, fiscal, economic and moral – but above all, it had become obvious that the media and traditional, elitist commentators had lost touch with both the issues and data. A bit surprised at the abuse I received, online and face-to-face, but the underlying cause, technology replacing meaningful jobs has come to pass in the UK also. We can go forward in death embrace with the EU or create our own future. I chose the latter.
3. Tesla times
I sat in my mate Paul Macilveney’s Tesla (he has one of only two in Northern Ireland), while it accelerated (silently) pushing my head back into the passenger seat. It was a gas without the gas. On the dashboard display I could see two cars ahead and vehicles all around the car, even though they were invisible to the driver. Near the end of the year we saw a Tesla car predict an accident between two other unseen cars, before it happened. But it was when Paul took his hands off the steering wheel, as we cambered round the corner of a narrow road in Donegal, that the future came into focus. In 2016, self-driving cars became real, and inevitable. The car is now a robot in which one travels. It has agency. More than this, it learns. It learns your roads, routes and preferences. It is also connected to the internet and that learning, the mapping of roads, is shared with all as yet unborn cars.
4. AI on tap
As the tech giants motored ahead with innumerable acquisitions and the development of major AI initiatives, some even redefining themselves as AI companies (IBM and Google), it was suddenly possible to use their APIs to do useful things. AI became a commodity or utility – on tap. That proved useful, very useful in starting a business.
However, as an antidote, to the danger that the tech monsters will be masters of the AI universe, Elon Musk started OpenAI. This is already proving to be a useful open source resource for developers. Its ‘Universe’ is a collection of test environments in which you can run your algorithms. This is a worthy initiative that balances out the monopolising effect of private, black-box, IP-driven AI.
There were also some astounding successes across the year. Google beat a GO champion, the most complex game we know. Time and time again, AI rose to the challenge. Take almost any area of human endeavour, add a dose of AI and you have a business.
7. WildFire Award
AI will become by far the most significant form of technology in learning. At first, two years ago, I invested in ‘adaptive learning’ but this year I designed and built (with a developer I’ve known for 25 years) an AI-driven content, curation and practice tool that not only won a major award for Most Innovative New Product in learning. It is now being used in anger by major corporates. Rather than just talk about AI, or post sceptical and negative platitudes about ‘all algorithms being biased’ or other such rot, we got on and did something.
8. Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo. This put AI bang in the centre of my home. The progress in Natural Language Programming is astounding, in speech recognition, understanding, translation and generation. It was interesting to see how Siri had crept into my wife’s the behaviour on her iPhone. But this was something else. This is a hint at consumer level AI that acts as a sort of teacher, concierge, DJ and personal shopper.
On a visit to lecture at Penn State University I came across a couple of bot projects that intrigued me. It was a revelation to find that Twitter was ridden with bots but seeing some real examples, such as a pupil bot for trainee teachers, who behaved as troublesome lads tend to in school, showed how this new approach through natural language interfaces, will have a profound effect on how we interact with AI. AI itself has provided rapid advance in natural language processing that has made AI accessible at the consumer level. We’ve been training up bots for 2017.
At the end of the year and at the same time as we won an award for WildFire, I was in Berlin to take part in a debate, with the motion ‘AI can, will and should replace teachers’. It was an opportunity to show that, given recent advances from Google onwards, at some time it would be ridiculous to say that AI will decimate professions such as lawyers, Doctors, Accountants and managers, yet leave ‘teaching’ untouched. That’s merely a conceit. Many were surprised at the real-word examples in the creation of learning content, personalised feedback, assessment and reinforcement. It’s not that it’s coming, it’s already here.
Finally, On the last day of the year, I got news about being involved in some exciting AI in learning research and some nice invitations to speak on the subject.
Both my sons are pretty technical but one is doing a degree in AI. This has been a Godsend. Being able to get immediate clarification advice on tools, and generally engage in conversations with someone whose passion is AI, has been more than useful. Their hero is not any politician, scientist, entertainer or musician but a techie. Not Steve Jobs or Marc Zuckerberg but Elon Musk. He’s the titan – super smart but not just gassing away but DOING something. They see in him a new generation of pioneers, who use AI for social and human good – the end of fossil fuels and therefore global warming, self-driving cars and going to Mars. The world in 2016 got a lot smarter, it will get smarter still.